Vietnam plans human trials of bird-flu vaccine

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Hanoi – A Vietnamese pharmaceuticals company is to begin testing an avian influenza vaccine in humans this week, the company’s director confirmed Tuesday. Nguyen Thu Van – director of Vabiotech, a subsidiary of Vietnam’s National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology – said human trials would begin later this week and run for eight months.

Vabiotech has contracted Vietnam’s Military Medical Institute to conduct the trials, the first in Vietnam for a human bird-flu vaccine. If they prove successful, mass production of the vaccine could begin in late 2009 for domestic consumption.

“It’s very important to test the vaccine on humans and to produce it,” Van said. “The fatality rate among people infected with bird flu is very high.”

Bird flu has infected 106 people in Vietnam, killing 52, since it first appeared in the country in late 2003. The latest fatality, an 11-year-old boy, occurred Friday.

Other countries have tested bird-flu vaccines in humans but have not brought them to the production stage.

Van said the Vietnamese vaccine had been tested on animals in 2005 and 2007 with good results.

A representative of the World Health Organization (WHO) said that because the Vietnamese vaccine was intended only for domestic consumption, international authorities would not be involved in supervising the trials.

In 2005, the WHO objected to Vietnam’s announcement that it was developing a human vaccine. At the time, the Vietnamese were using monkey kidneys to incubate the virus for the vaccine, a technique that is not favored in modern research.

H5N1 – the strain of bird flu that has infected 372 people in Asia and Africa and killed 235, according to WHO statistics – mainly affects poultry and wild birds but can infect people who have close contact with sick fowl. Scientists fear that the disease could eventually mutate into a form that could be transmitted between humans, leading to a worldwide pandemic that could kill millions.

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